Haisla chief councillor Ellis Ross may not have used up his full time allotment at last Tuesday’s Northern Gateway Educational Forum, but his brevity took nothing away from the message.
Ross was the opening speaker at the District of Kitimat sponsored event which also featured Dawson Creek mayor Mike Bernier, environmental consultant Greg Brown and Northern Gateway Pipeline president John Carruthers.
Ross told the approximately 300 people gathered in the Mount Elizabeth Theatre he was going to give them a history lesson on why the Haisla felt the way they did.
Looking back over the past 60 years of industrial development in their territory, he said “the Haisla have always got the dirty end of the stick.”
And added, “We do not want history to repeat itself.”
Ross said processes going back over that period had one thing in common: Haisla interests did not matter.
The mantra then was to promise the Haisla anything you wanted because in the end you didn’t need to deliver on any of them.
“For people who believed the environment would not be damaged, there was a cruel reality with oolichan disappearing from the Kitimat River, wild salmon being replaced by hatchery salmon, and our main village was taken over by corporations and municipalities,” he said.
However, Ross pointed out, back then that was all legitimate because it followed the processes of the time.
“Process back then did not mean talk with First Nations openly and honestly.”
And those processes allowed the Kitimat River to become a dumping ground for sewage, for the river to be dyked to the point that Haisla villages were washed away, and the dumping of effluent into the river that, in his opinion, tainted and contributed to the near extinction of the oolichan.
“In the 1970s the Haisla were literally crying about the loss of an oolichan run that was estimated to be in the hundreds of thousands of tonnes per year. Now we’re lucky if we find 50 for testing purposes.”
Beyond the river, Ross said this “tragic template” could be placed on their beaches that lacked shellfish and kelp beds and a polluted sea bed where contaminated crabs were the result of some decision maker who viewed the Haisla as “less than important participants.”
For a people who would be committed to this area long after everyone else was gone, he said, “this was a bitter pill to swallow.”
Ross said experience showed that the Haisla could expect one thing: that they would have to fight an unfair process on their own.
As an example, he pointed to the fact that it was the Haisla, with limited resources, who had to take Eurocan to the environmental appeal board once and the courts twice – a reference to the dumping of effluent into the Kitimat River and the impact upon oolichan.
“We received neither encouragement nor support for these actions from the District of Kitimat – or anybody else for that matter. We stood alone to protect the environment while those around us collected tax revenues and benefits.”
Ross said injury was added to insult when Eurocan’s permit was amended to allow more effluent to be dumped into the river because it could not hit its intended targets.
“And for those of you who think the Haisla were looking for more dollars, the last Eurocan agreement [with the Haisla] was based on improvements Eurocan could do with its processes, not for more dollars for the Haisla.”
Ross pointed out the exploitation of resources had made non-Haisla very wealthy while at the same time leading to the Haisla “spiralling into dependence and poverty.”
However, in the end there was a silver lining: case law laid down by the courts that ruled First Nations had rights and title to the land. “Your courts, not mine,” he added.
Those courts had ruled consultation with First Nations must be meaningful and “the honour of the Crown” had to be upheld.
Turning to the Joint Review Panel (JRP) that is currently considering the Northern Gateway project, Ross pointed out the three-member panel did not have one from BC let alone a First Nations member.
And the JRP was not intended to “engage in good faith dialogue, but only to hear evidence.”
“That, in our opinion, is a one-way street,” Ross added.
Given the National Energy Board [they are involved in the JRP process] had never rejected a proposal, he said the Haisla were wondering, “is everyone just going through the motions on a decision that has already been made, even with all the case law in existence?”
In closing, Ross said he would like people to know two things.
First, the work the Haisla had done had benefited the entire region. “It is up to those around us that want to see fair process to join the Haisla and not sit on the sidelines.”
Second, Canada is required to consult with the Haisla but will not. “This is a breach of their obligations under the Constitution.
“This is not the 1950s anymore,” he said. “If Canada breaches Haisla Nation rights, we can – and will – fight back.”